There are reasons galore to be skeptical about the current negotiations between the US and the Taliban, which have gone through multiple rounds in recent months. These reasons range from the Taliban’s refusal to let the Afghan government participate in the talks, to the fact that the insurgents’ strong battlefield performance gives them little incentive to stop fighting.
Yet even the most hardened skeptic has to acknowledge that these talks have legs, and should not simply be shrugged off as a noble experiment fated to fail. First, top leaders are involved on both sides.
President Donald Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, the seasoned and senior diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, leads the US team. In recent days, media reports have stated that none other than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may travel to Doha, where the most recent talks have been taking place, to lend his support to negotiations.
Picture this: America’s top diplomat sitting across from the militants who once hosted Al-Qaeda and oversaw a brutal theocracy, and who are now wreaking havoc across Afghanistan in their effort to overthrow the US-allied government there. We have come a long way from a decade ago, when Washington sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan in an ill-fated attempt to suppress a strengthening Taliban insurgency.
And in this day and age, when the Trump administration has sought to court several of its most bitter enemies, one cannot completely discount this surreal scenario: Trump himself hosting a summit with Mullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader. Among other things, one could count on a very interesting post-summit press conference.
It is on the Taliban side, however, where the seriousness of purpose is most striking. This is an organization that controls more territory in Afghanistan than ever before, knows that Trump is itching for a deal to give him cover for a withdrawal, and in general has little incentive to stop fighting. Yet the Taliban has deployed some of its top figures to join the negotiations.
These personalities have reportedly included the chief of staff to Akhunzada, and more recently Mullah Baradar, a founding Taliban leader who languished in a Pakistani prison for much of the last decade until he was suddenly freed (likely under US pressure) to join the talks. When the Taliban sends its very top leaders to negotiations, you know it is not just testing the waters — rather, it is ready to take the full plunge.
The second reason why skeptics need to acknowledge that these talks are for real is the negotiation process itself. Not only have there been multiple rounds of US-Taliban talks, but the most recent round lasted extraordinarily long — 12 days and counting, as of this writing.
The two sides may still be far apart on their respective demands and objectives, but if they have met every day for nearly two weeks, then you know they have got plenty to talk about. That bodes well for negotiations.
A State Department official recently said talks now revolve around four core issues: A US troop withdrawal, counterterrorism efforts, a ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks. If true, this marks a major progression. The Taliban has consistently said it will not talk to Kabul until it gets a deal on a troop withdrawal with the US. The fact that these issues are now apparently all in the mix at the same time, and are no longer separated, is new and encouraging.
This is not to say that any type of deal is imminent. Far from it. These types of negotiations take time — not months or even years, but decades. One of the most analogous cases to the current war in Afghanistan is the FARC insurgency in Colombia.
Like the Taliban, FARC's was a fearsome insurgency financed by drug money that enjoyed a cross-border sanctuary. And the Colombian government, like Kabul, struggled to suppress the threat despite receiving ample assistance from America.
The war in Colombia was finally negotiated to an end a few years ago — decades after it began. So it beggars belief to think that the White House can get a deal with the Taliban by the summer — the Trump administration’s current target.
Such understandable pushback aside, the headline here is this: Not long ago, the idea of formal, direct and sustained talks between the US and the Taliban would have sounded somewhat preposterous. But here we are today, with top US officials and Taliban representatives spending days on end together, discussing the very issues that each side considers to be the most important.
Could all this progress go up in smoke, especially if the Taliban decides to walk away? Sure. But that very progress should make the incentive to push on with talks, no matter how long and difficult the process may be to get an agreement, even stronger.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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